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Is “Freethinker” Synonymous with Nontheist?


Jeffery Jay Lowder

In this column, I want to consider two distinct but closely related questions: (1) can a theist be a freethinker?; and (2) are all nontheists freethinkers? I shall argue that the answer to (1) is “yes” and the answer to (2) is “no.” I shall then argue that nontheists should stop using the word “freethinker” as an umbrella term.

Can A Theist be a Freethinker?

For many nontheists, the concept of a “theistic freethinker” is a contradiction in terms. For example, the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA), the campus outreach program of the Council for Secular Humanism, states that “Freethought is the application of critical thinking and logic to all areas of human experience, and the rejection of supernatural and authoritarian beliefs.”[1] Thus, on the CFA’s definition of “freethought,” theists by definition cannot be freethinkers.

But why should we accept the CFA’s definition of “freethinker”? Consider the case of a person who applies “critical thinking and logic to all areas” of their life, including religion. Imagine a person who reads the Secular Web on a daily basis but one day decides to read Richard Swinburne’s book, The Existence of God. Suppose this person becomes persuaded by Swinburne’s book that there is a cumulative case for God’s existence which shows that theism is more probable than atheism. This person has clearly applied “critical thinking and logic” to their theistic belief; moreover, they are vigilant in searching the literature for any criticisms of Swinburne’s arguments. Yet, so far, they have not found any reason to doubt Swinburne’s case. Is this person a “freethinker”? It seems just obvious to me that the answer is (and should be) a resounding “yes.”

I am quite aware that the number of theists who fit the above description must be very low. Indeed, I have never met a person who fits the above description. But that is irrelevant to my argument. I am not claiming that all or even most theists are freethinkers; I simply claiming that it is possibe for a theist to be a freethinker.

At this point, I can imagine the reaction of most nontheists: “I agree with you that a theist can be a freethinker, but a theist would have to be liberal in order to be a freethinker. An Evangelical Christian definitely could not be a freethinker.” According to this line of argument, an Evangelical Christian is someone who accepts (among other things) the inspiration of Scripture, including its passages which have implications for the epistemology of the believer. Thus, Evangelical Christians are supposed to “Lean not on [their] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) and “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).[2] This point is well-taken. Anyone who attempts to obey Biblical passages such as these cannot be a freethinker, though a person as a freethinker could become an Evangelical Christian (and, ironically, cease to be a freethinker).

Are All Nontheists Freethinkers?

Some nontheists seem to assume that anyone who is a nontheist is automatically a freethinker; however, I think they are woefully mistaken. Just because someone lacks belief in God does not mean the person is a freethinker. For example, some agnostics have never bothered to consider the arguments for the existence of God; by definition they are not freethinkers. Or consider the man in Communist China who holds the positive belief that God does not exist, simply because his family and his government told him so. Clearly this atheist is not someone “who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.”[3] This would be true even if the man’s conclusion (that God does not exist) were true.

Of course, it’s possible that most atheists and agnostics really are freethinkers. But if that is so–and as an empirical claim, it is one which needs to be proven, not assumed–it is not by virtue of their atheism or agnosticism.

Nontheists Should Stop Using “Freethought” as an Umbrella Term

By equating “freethought” with atheism, agnosticism, or naturalism, nontheists have turned the word “freethinker” into a semantical joke. For although the word “freethinker” implies a person who thinks freely about any subject, many nontheists now define the word so that a person who believes in a god (even the god of Deism) is not “free” to be a freethinker.

Do nontheists who define “freethinker” in this way actually expect theists to be fooled by this distortion of language? Better yet, do any nontheists really believe that only nontheists can “form opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief”? Do they honestly think that there is not a single theist anywhere in the world who become convinced of the existence of God “on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief”?

Nontheists who equate “freethought” with “nontheism” have completely missed the point. “Freethought” is not about whether a person holds a given belief, much less a given religious belief. Rather, “freethought” is about the reasons why a person holds a given belief about anything. Nontheists who equate nontheism with freethought would do well to read the words of Bertrand Russell:

The expression “free thought” is often used as if it meant merely opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy. But this is only a symptom of free thought, frequent, but invariable. “Free thought” means thinking freely–as freely, at least, as is possible for a human being. The person who is free in any respect is free from something; what is the free thinker free from? To be worthy of the name, he must be free of two things; the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passions. No one is completely free from either, but in the measure of a man’s emancipation he deserves to be called a free thinker. A man is not to be denied this title because he happens, on some point, to agree with the theologians of his country. An Arab who, starting from the first principles of human reason, is able to deduce that the Koran was not created, but existed eternally in heaven, may be counted as a free thinker, provided he is willing to listen to counter arguments and subject his ratiocination to critical scrutiny. … What makes a free thinker is not his beliefs, but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought, he find a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.[4]

Freethought is not about whether a belief is true, it’s about the reasons an individual has for holding a belief.[5]

The time has come for ‘freethinkers’ to think freely about their definition of freethought.[6] If our goal is to be taken seriously by theists–as it should be, since we are in the minority–it is time we stop playing games with words and admit that theists can be freethinkers, too. I agree that we need an umbrella term, but “freethinker” isn’t it.

* This paper is a revised version of a paper that was originally entitled, “Must a Freethinker Be a Nontheist?” and published as a Secular Web Feature article in 1999.


[1] Campus Freethought Alliance, “Identity & Purpose: Basics” (<URL:http://www.campusfreethought.org/identity/basics.html>, n.d.).

[2] This argument was suggested to me by Dan Barker in private correspondence.

[3] Freedom From Religion Foundation, “What Is a Freethinker?” (<URL:http://www.ffrf.org/nontracts/freethinker.html>, n.d.). Italics are mine.

[4] Bertrand Russell, “The Value of Free Thought” Bertrand Russell on God and Religion (ed. Al Seckel, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1986), pp. 239-40. The italics are in the original; the boldface is mine.

[5] I am well aware that I have been writing about “freethought” (1 word) whereas Russell was discussing “free thought” (2 words). But I deny that there is (or should be) a distinction between the two terms; it is too awkward. For if we maintain there is such a distinction, imagine having to say the following sentence in conversation:

A theist can be a “free thinker” about the existence of God but not a “freethinker.”

I submit that this is precisely the sort of semantical quibbling that has given nontheists a bad name. We should therefore treat “free thought” and “freethought” as synonymous.

[6] However, even if one defines ‘freethinker’ so as to allow theists, there is a deeper, epistemological issue that needs to be explored: namely, whether reason is the only adequate grounds for belief. As Daniel Howard-Snyder pointed out in private correspondence, a belief may be justified on some other basis than reason and yet not conflict with reason. The FFRF definition of ‘freethinker’ rules out such justification; in contrast, the CFA definition seems to allow the possibility that experience is a source of warranted, justified belief. This is a significant point because many theists base their religious beliefs on perceptual evidence, not reason.

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